My husband used to tell me about his father making bread soup for him and his mother during The Great Depression–bread and milk and that was it.
As my husband told it, the family sat around their kitchen table and a had a “Life Is Beautiful” moment, coping with the reality of their empty shelves by pretending they were feasting.
Not having lived through The Great Depression myself (I’m a boomer), it was/is hard for me to comprehend the degree to which the privations of that period impacted people’s lives. It is clear to me that the dire shortages of food left an indelible mark on lives lived during those awful times, but I believe there are events in history that you have to experience to truly understand. I’m sure that is true for people who lived through the horrors of WWII and the injustice of Japanese Internment and for people who lived under Jim Crow in the South. I suspect that that is true now for people (me included) who lived through September 11 and, watching the catastrophe unfold, wondered what was in store for our nation. What, indeed?
I’m attaching a book review that ran in this week’s NY Times. The book, A Square Meal, was written by a husband and wife team of food historians, Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe, and chronicles the myriad ways people, like my husband’s family, coped with food issues during The Great Depression.
The Times‘ reviewer, Steven Kurutz, calls the book “a feast of historical tidbits,” and includes several historical anecdotes in his review. I found it interesting that gourmand Franklin Roosevelt, with a stiff nudge from Eleanor, committed himself to set an example for the nation by eating humbly in the White House. Early in his first term, for example, it was pointedly shared with the press that FDR was served a modest meal of deviled eggs in tomato sauce and prune pudding while working at his desk in the Oval Office.
Reading Kurutz’ review piqued my interest and sent me off among my books and to internet sites to read more about food and the FDR kitchens.
I found an article in The New Yorker Magazine about the dismal state of cuisine in FDR’s White House that portrays the historic lunch that Ziegelman and Coe describe with a little less varnish:
“The meal started abruptly, with a main course of stuffed eggs, prepared as plainly as possible by mashing five hard-cooked yolks with a teaspoon of vinegar and half a teaspoon of minced onion. A thin coat of tomato sauce covered the eggs, which were served hot, accompanied by mashed potatoes and whole-wheat bread. Dessert was a small portion of pudding made chiefly from prunes, flour, and water. Festive it wasn’t; nevertheless, this was luncheon for six at the White House on March 21, 1933, less than three weeks after Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first Inauguration. The President, a sophisticated and enthusiastic food lover, was not at the table. He had asked for a tray in his office, and later said that the meal had been “good.” But for Eleanor Roosevelt, proudly presiding at the lunch, “good” didn’t begin to address it. She had been planning the White House meals since well before the Inauguration, commissioning nutritious, low-cost menus from the home-economics faculty at Cornell, in the hope of making the White House a demonstration project for conscientious cookery during the Depression. It was a personal triumph to see one of these humble, wholesome meals served on White House china—two courses for only seven and a half cents per person, including coffee. She told the press that she and the President would be eating this way regularly.”
When the Roosevelts moved into the White House in 1933, Eleanor hired Henrietta Nesbitt, a political ally with no formal training in cooking or hotel management, to serve as the chief housekeeper. Mrs. Nesbitt had been a church friend and League of Women Voters friend in Hyde Park and, when Nesbitt’s husband lost his job during the Depression, Roosevelt had hired her to bake homemade breads and cakes for the Roosevelt household in New York. Mrs. Nesbitt had a pretty thin resume when Eleanor tapped her for the White House job.
Prickly-tempered and arbitrary, Nesbitt quickly alienated the White House kitchen staff and, although FDR joked that he hoped to win a fourth term just so that he could fire Nesbitt, she served the administration throughout Roosevelt’s tenure. Day after day, year after year, Nesbitt turned out meals for the First Family that were, as The New Yorker described them, “…so gray, so drooping, and so spectacularly inept that they became a Washington legend.”
Ernest Hemingway, a White House dinner guest in 1937, complained that the meal he was served was the worst he had ever eaten. “We had a rainwater soup followed by rubber squab, a nice wilted salad and a cake some admirer had sent in. An enthusiastic but unskilled admirer.”
To be fair, Nesbitt was saddled with a very tight budget and a mandate from Eleanor Roosevelt to run a plain and sober White House during tough times. Too, she worked for a First Lady whose palate has been described as being “made of the same steel as her moral constitution.” Nevertheless, Nesbitt oversaw a White House cuisine that was remarkable for its dreariness-lots of cheap cuts of meat (including brains, sweetbreads and tongues), lots of jello molds and marshmallow-decorated deserts that drew snickers from guests.
Presidential lunches were a particular irritation for FDR with the same dishes cycling endlessly onto the President’s plate–broiled kidneys on toast, chipped beef on toast, shrimp wiggle on toast (shrimp wiggle?), curried eggs on toast, creamed chicken, creamed beef, creamed celery, broiled sweetbreads, braised sweetbreads, creamed sweetbreads, creamed sweetbreads and mushrooms.
There were numerous leaks and a lot of gossip about the state of culinary affairs in the White House and FDR’s displeasure with his food. In 1937 The Times ran a headline: “Same Menu Four Days Palls on Roosevelt.” The President had been served liver and string beans four days in a row. In her memoir, Nesbitt would later reveal that Eleanor had reassured her when the press ran the liver and string beans story, saying that FDR was “in a tizzy” from working too hard and that expressions like “The vegetables are watery” and “I’m sick of liver and beans” were mere figures of speech. Seems like a clearly-targeted remark to me, but it was a good try on Eleanor’s part to diffuse the situation.
Incredibly, when the most powerful man in the world asserted himself and asked for dishes he enjoyed, Nesbitt wielded a powerful and unalterable veto. He asked that chicken a la king be put on the menu for the fourth inaugural luncheon; Mrs. Nesbitt served chicken salad. He asked for coffee; she sent iced tea. You get the picture. It was a war of wills.
There is another possible explanation for the fact that FDR was regularly served the modern-day equivalent of prison loaf. Blanche Wiesen Cook, in her biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, theorizes that Roosevelt, badly wounded by her husband’s dalliances early in their marriage, may have used food and Mrs. Nesbitt as weapons. Cook writes, “ER’s curious disregard for her husband’s tastes suggests an explanation for her persistent defense of Henrietta Nesbitt: The housekeeper was one expression of her passive-aggressive behavior in a marriage of remarkable and labyrinthine complexity.”
The New Yorker ran this cartoon with a caption that explained that those invited to dine with the Roosevelts learned a lesson from the FDR White House– eat before you go.
Here is the recipe for the prune pudding.
Here is the book review:
Here is a photo of FDR, Eleanor Roosevelt and Fala that I have always liked. I can’t know for sure, but I suspect Fala found a lot of sweetbreads and liver in his food bowl.